Sheriff Bigby Wolf - former Red Riding Hood consumer and Little Pig harasser turned neo-noir urban sheriff - is a fascinating protagonist for Telltale’s latest episodic adventure series The Wolf Among Us.
Comparisons between the new game and the developers much-loved The Walking Dead series are somewhat inevitable, and, if anything, Bigby is a more interesting character than Lee Everett. Without the moral compass that Clementine provides in The Walking Dead, Bigby is far more morally ambiguous.
It's immediately obvious from the reactions of those around you that Bigby is not well loved by the misplaced Fables with whose well-being he is charged, and that opens the game up to more varied possibilities in terms of what kind of character you want your own “Bigby Wolf” to be.
The game is based on Bill Willingham’s long-running and much loved Fables comic book series, but in spite of having such a solid foundation, it never feels as if Telltale is merely lifting directly from source. Set a fair time before the earliest sequences in the Fables comics, the game uses its alternate chronology to put its own stamp on Willingham’s narrative. Some important elements that are fairly central in the comics - The Farm; the fact that a Fable’s strength is dependant in part on how much the “mundies” (or non-Fables) believe in them - is left out, which might bother some Fables devotees, but these absences never really detract from the emotional impact of the game’s story.
This is in part credit to Telltale’s outstanding writers and voice actors, who together make you feel at home amongst characters who, for Fables newcomers, have been only recently introduced. Toad’s stressed, world weary cockney tone and long suffering sighs tell you more about him as a character than any bio could, while Bigby’s hard-edged drawl is laced with a humour that raises him above a mere noir cliche. In terms of characterization, the game has not a single weak link.
Visually, the game is also pretty flawless. The style and colour pallette of The Wolf Among Us’ stunning cell-shaded animation deviates entirely from the original comic books. The harsh, almost neon colours, the heavy use of purples, pinks and yellows is part-Watchmen, part-Pulp Fiction; perfectly capturing the dark, uncertain and dirty world of 1980s New York. Visual highlights include the library scene, where smooth, beautifully rendered book illustrations of Snow White, Beauty, Beast and the Big Bad Wolf in their long lost “homeland” juxtapose magnificently with the sharp contrasts and jagged lines of the game itself, a lovely little flourish whereby the visual style echoes the storyline.
The Walking Dead deviated from the traditional trappings of an adventure game by cutting out much of the item hunting and puzzle solving associated with the genre. The Wolf Among Us goes further; you might be a “detective”, but there is little to no detection to be done, since the items available to be investigated are all fairly clearly marked. This lack of investigative gameplay keeps your focus on what is important in the game; your decision making and the ramifications of those. Telltale has managed to masterfully combine preventable and inevitable plot points in a way that plays on the psyche of the gamer. If one character’s fate is preventable providing you make the right decisions, you begin to wonder if another character’s ill fortune might have been changed had you played differently, or done things in another order.
Part of the nuance of this decision making is the lack of clarity about what is or is not a “good” or “bad” response. In most games where you have a choice of responses, the way in which the people around you will respond is fairly clear cut; it is obvious whether you’re going to start a fight or make a friend.. When the choice to be good or bad is so clear cut, there is little incentive to replay a scene to see how it would have panned out had you replied differently.
There are some moments in The Wolf Among Us where this is the case, where you can decide to placate or decimate someone. But much of the time, the morality of your decision making is much more oblique. The short response time at certain points in conversation - particularly at times of high tension- adds a welcome sense of urgency to this aspect of the gameplay. A split second decision at one point of the game can determine whether a certain character lives or dies, a single comment can raise or damage others’ trust in Bigby.
At these moments, a note on the UI will occasionally pop up, letting you know that “Snow will remember” a kind comment you made, or that Colin the pig now thinks you’re an ass. It is this kind of information that keeps you hooked to the story. I want to know how Toad’s new found trust in me might help me in episode two, or three, or whether Ichabod Crane’s dislike will cause me problems in the future. As a result, you find yourself wanting to play the episode again and again, plotting out all the possible consequences for Bigby and his fellow Fables.
The action scenes are not always quite as consistent as the conversation and story. Although the early fight sequences are a great way of introducing drama and pace from the get-go, as a whole the fighting is the easiest aspect of episode one to feel ambivalent about.
On the one hand, they are spectacularly animated and choreographed, and add some welcome visceral immediacy to the game. On the other, they take away the element of decision making that is the crux of this title, playing more as glorified QTEs than actual fights and with the end result often seeming pre-determined and arbitrary. In a game that places so much emphasis on the consequences of your decisions, that was a little disappointing, taking away the sense of autonomy that makes The Wolf Among Us so enjoyable.
Although the game looks stunning, a couple of minor technical glitches did crop up. The frame rate was occasionally on the choppy side, there were little screen freezes during scene changes, and the scene changes themselves were pretty slow. The impact was minor overall, but in a game little more than two hours long and so dependent on consistent engagement with story, these glitches were an irritation; one that Telltale will hopefully be able to iron out by episode two.
It is difficult to judge how competent an entire game will be based solely on the first of five episodes. However, it's safe to say that with “Faith” Telltale have started out with a bang, introducing a great cast of characters and a “killer” storyline, and ending on a sufficiently dramatic cliffhanger to have fans clamouring for episode two.